THE CONTORTIONS Buy (4 Men With Beards)

Born of the New York No Wave scene, The Contortions’ sole album, originally released in 1979, might sound Beefheartian to the lazy ear, as James Chance’s sax and accusatory vocals squawk and yelp through random slashes of slide guitar. Further acquaintance, however, suggests that the band’s music approximates what Pere Ubu might have sounded like had they signed to 2-Tone or Stiff – the thin, wiry organ behind “I Don’t Want To Be Happy”, for example, is pure Specials or Attractions. The kind of apparently random melodic construction found on the good Captain’s best albums is absent here; for all their avant garde intentions these songs conform pretty rigidly to common time. Although Chance is all over the shop – as he sings at one point, “My idea of fun…is being whipped on the back of my thighs/I prefer the ridiculous to the sublime” – I can’t quite shake the suspicion that the notes employed could be easily rearranged into something far more harmonious.

At times “Buy” can be quite fun, in a masochistic sort of way – the elastic “Contort Yourself”, for example, on which Reverend Chance preaches his gospel of non-conformity – but over the space of an entire (albeit short) album the appeal wears perilously thin. Being a product of San Franciscoreissue specialists 4 Men With Beards, this pressing of “Buy” arrives on chunky vinyl, but without the contextualising essays found on some of the company’s other releases.


JAMES WHITE AND THE BLACKS Off White (4 Men With Beards)

Released simultaneously with his Contortions-credited album “Buy”, on “Off White” White, unsurprisingly, offers more of the same. That is, an elastic funk/free jazz hybrid that sounds like early Talking Heads jamming with Ornette Coleman. Proceedings begin disappointingly, with an almost disco remake of “Buy”’s high point, “Contort Yourself”, stripped of its playful “Contort yourself one time/Contort yourself two times” countdowns. “Stained Sheets” follows, an obscene phone call soundtracked by squalling sax and police siren organ. A version of Irving Berlin’s “(Tropical) Heat Wave” is less a leap into the bizarre than a lurch towards melody, albeit still sabotaged by Chance’s crazed horn playing and some rudely inquisitive slide guitar.

Unfortunately the sequencing of “Off White” divides the album into a side of songs followed by a side of instrumentals, and it’s the latter that really taxes the patience. These lyricless tracks seem to have no focal point – blame it on the basslines, perhaps – and soon you start to miss Chance’s atonal yelping, his atonal alto sax being a poor substitute.

“Off White” works, if at all, as a companion volume to “Buy”, but if you’re after a single James White purchase you might as well stick with the latter. Nevertheless, as it’s becoming increasingly difficult to buy these albums separately, you may be spared the choice. Again, this vinyl reissue doesn’t display the kind of attention to detail lavished on other 4 Men With Beards releases, perhaps in acknowledgement of its No Wave roots – if it’s pressed on 180 grams of anything, it feels like spittle and shellac.